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Bears seeking draft picks with high football IQ

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With the coronavirus limiting NFL offseason programs and possibly training camp this year, the Bears are placing an even greater focus than usual on drafting players who possess a high football IQ.

"Football intelligence is always an emphasis for us," general manager Ryan Pace said Tuesday during a pre-draft video conference call with the media. "I think maybe we're even more mindful of that this year, just having guys with a high football IQ."

With NFL team facilities closed due to COVID-19, the Bears kicked off their virtual offseason program Monday with a two-hour classroom session. The draft will also be conducted virtually for the first time in league history this Thursday through Saturday.

With Bears coaches unable to work with players at Halas Hall until all 32 NFL facilities are able to reopen, Pace will rely on coach Matt Nagy and his staff to help get the team's rookies up to speed. 

"We have good coaches," Pace said. "That's when we lean on them to develop these guys under unique circumstances. When you have intelligent football players—high football IQ—and good coaches that can develop them, you find a way to make it work."

The Bears have seven picks in the draft—two in Round 2 (Nos. 43 and 50), one in Round 5 (163) and two apiece in Rounds 6 (196 and 200) and 7 (226 and 233).

With less hands-on time between coaches and players this offseason, teams may be tempted to draft the most NFL-ready prospects. But the unique circumstances won't keep Pace from picking a less polished player with a high ceiling.

"When we're drafting a young player we hope is part of our organization for a long time, you do have to think a little long-term, too, with that," Pace said. "I would hate to deviate from a really talented player that is going to help us for many years to come just because the first couple of months of his development might be slowed a little bit."

With Halas Hall closed, Pace will be conducting the Bears' draft from his dining room. But he doesn't expect the virtual format to hinder the team's ability to make trades.

"We've already touched base with numerous teams and talked over some of those things," Pace said. "We do that every year.

"I think the continuity that we have with each other makes it easier. I don't feel like trades, for us, are going to be any more difficult this year. I have a phone here right in front of me. It's the same phone that I would have in the draft room, with every GM direct-dialed with the click of one button. So I think everything's efficient. I think leaning on the continuity of our staff, I don't have any concerns about us pulling off trades or being aggressive in that nature if we need to be."

Pace has made nine trades in his five drafts as Bears general manager, moving up six times and down three times. Interestingly, all three times he traded down have come in the second round. Having two picks in the second round in the same vicinity this year at No. 43 and 50 could result in another deal. 

"We go over all the scenarios with either one of those picks—moving up under certain scenarios or moving back under certain scenarios—but we have a good feel for what type of players will be there around those picks," Pace said. "Depending on how the draft's unfolding, we'll know, 'Hey, I feel like we can move back right now and accumulate some additional picks and still be in a good pool of players.'"

One area that figures to be impacted in a virtual draft will be the scramble to sign undrafted free agents. It's normally a chaotic scene when general managers, scouts, coaches and contract negotiators are in the same building. But with them all in their own homes this year, it likely will be even crazier than usual.

"College free agency is a challenge when we are at Halas and all in one room," Pace said. "It's controlled chaos. So now it's just [about] getting really organized. We have multiple Skype rooms set up with coaches and scouts paired together and just making sure we are communicating and locked in on that because that can be chaotic as it is. So I feel really good about our plan in college free agency going forward."

Pace credited director of player personnel Josh Lucas, director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, director of football administration Joey Laine and assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly with helping the Bears prepare for college free agency. 

With many of the undrafted prospects not invited to the NFL Combine and unable to participate in Pro Days, the Bears will rely even more heavily than usual on the opinions of their college scouts.

"When you talk about guys that never tested, that's when you lean on our scouts," Pace said. "Part of me likes that. Sometimes I think we can get too enamored with the measurables and how these guys tested away from the football field. So now we are really leaning on our evaluations and what your eyes see as a scout.

"Forget what this guy ran in the 40; we don't have his 40 time. We don't have a three-cone, we don't have a short shuttle, we don't have a vertical. Let's evaluate what we see on him as a football player. I think our scouts have done a great job communicating that."

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